Central to the role of the next Archbishop of Canterbury will be his views on human sexuality, not because that is the most important thing about Christian theology (though it is quite important), but because the agenda of our society will make it so.
The accusation is often made that the Church is obsessed with sex, and by ‘the Church’ is meant ‘the Church as represented by traditional believers’. But it is not traditional believers who have been making the running on issues of human sexuality in the last sixty years.
The British Library Catalogue lists just one book published before 1964 on the subject of ‘Christianity and homosexuality’, which is D S Bailey’s Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (1955).
In the 1960s there are four more titles, two published by the theologically liberal SCM Press. In the 1970s there are thirty-four titles, eight published by the Gay Christian Movement. In the 1980s this increases to forty-six titles. In the 1990s there are one hundred and fifty-seven titles and in the first decade of the new millennium one hundred and seventy-seven. Since 2010, a further twenty-five titles have been added. The majority in every decade reflect the revisionist perspective.
In other words, the traditionalist ‘obsession’ with issues of sexuality is actually reactive, not proactive. The obsession has lain outside the ranks of traditional Christian faith and practice, where the concern has simply been (although that was difficult enough) with the maintenance of established boundaries.
When it comes to the new Archbishop, what we don’t need is, I very much fear, exactly what we are going to get, namely a man who will on the one hand declare his personal support for ‘the traditional view of marriage’, but on the other hand a willingness to ‘engage in the important conversation we need to have about issues of sexuality’.
If this is the man we get, his support for traditionalism will disarm the conservatives and his openness to the ‘conversation’ will ensure the further inroads of revisionism.
In the present context, a statement of ‘support’ for the traditional understanding of marriage is effectively meaningless. After all, even the Bishop of Salisbury, who is quite clear about his position, has declared his commitment to ‘Supporting marriage as it is currently understood’. The question at present is not what we support, but what we oppose.
But the real problem is the notion of continuing conversation.
Regarding such a conversation, there are only two real possible outcomes. The first is that after some time, it is decided that the ‘current understanding’ of marriage is right and other alternatives are wrong. The second is to decide that we can add other ‘understandings’ of marriage to our ‘current understanding’ — that is the view of the present government, and will lead to significant social change.
Some will say, there is a third possibility, namely to go on talking — but that is not an outcome of the conversation, it is simply the conversation itself. Eventually there must, and will, be actual outcomes.
Now if the new Archbishop really desired change, it would be better for him to say so. It would be much healthier for everyone, especially with the likely defeat of the Anglican Covenant to be clear about where we stand and which side of the debate we are on.
However, if he is really a true traditionalist, then offering ‘conversation’ is not only disingenuous but dangerous. What we need from him in that case is not conversation but teaching, which affirms and reinforces the traditional view.
And we could certainly do with that now. It has always struck me that one of the ironies of Jeffery John’s little book (about to be reprinted) is called Permanent, Faithful, Stable. John’s argument, essentially, is that same-sex relationships can, in the words of the title, have the same characteristics as heterosexual relationships. But permanency has long ceased to be a demand of the Church of England when it comes to marriage. Why, then, should it be a requirement for other relationships?
I have also remarked that, given our attitude to what Jesus said about divorce, it doesn’t really matter that he didn’t say anything specific about homosexuality, since it hasn’t stopped us disregarding him when we so choose.
The interesting thing about Jesus’ teaching on this subject is that it was clearly widely known as his personal view by the early Church. When the apostle Paul tells the Corinthian Christians that they may separate if necessary, but never divorce, he adds that he has this command from the Lord.
It is also significant that the widespread disobedience to this command is used as a kind of tu quoque argument in favour of same-sex relationships. The logic is false (two wrongs actually don’t make a right), but the sense is compelling — we don’t do what Jesus said here (in fact Desmond Tutu went so far as to say we know Jesus got it wrong), so why should we insist on strictness in other areas?
A useful question might therefore be this: which of our bishops currently upholds and teaches the scriptural view of marriage? I have recently had to do some work on Canon C18. Much attention is focussed at the moment on what it has to say about the bishop’s authority:
Every bishop is the chief pastor of all that are within his diocese, as well laity as clergy, and their father in God ...
Perhaps at the present time a little more attention should be paid to what it next says about the bishop’s ministry:
... it appertains to his office to teach and to uphold sound and wholesome doctrine, and to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange opinions ...
When Jesus was asked his opinion about divorce he gave it. Any opinion to the contrary is surely ‘erroneous and strange’. Let’s give that some thought in our present debates.Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend: